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- Hi, I'm Ram, and this is a special episode of Another Switch Media release.
- Today, I've written a piece for presentation on Cloud Streaming, and what I think of it and its future.
- A few weeks ago Google had their Stadia Connect event. Since then conversation online has been very at odds about our game streaming future.
- There's only one thing for certain right now, Cloud streaming is the future of video games.
- In this presentation I plan on addressing the concerns of cloud streaming while bringing up my own, as well as speculating on where this could lead in the next 5-10 years. As with any new technology, of course the future for game streaming is uncertain, but I have high hopes, and concerns for this future.
- So, first let's start talking about what we know:
- Right now, Google is working on releasing their stadia platform, due out for November of this year to those who buy in early, and due out publically in 2020. The pricing of this service is 10 US dollars monthly with up to 4k 60fps HDR support, as well as the games. Games are up to 60 US Dollars, but with the subscription you'll be getting free access to some. The service is also available freely with your quality throttled to 1080p 60fps SDR. Google has full compatibility set up for anything with a web browser, and has their own controller that connects directly to wifi to try and limit controller latency.
- Xbox is currently working on their XCloud platform. It appears to be due out around the same time as Google's Stadia platform. We have no pricing information, but it'll likely be the same as Google's Stadia as well as it'll be compatible with Xbox GamePass, offering over 200 games for another 10 US dollars monthly. If you want to play online you'll be able to subscribe to GamePass Ultimate for 15 US dollars.
- Other services will be mentioned throughout this piece, but won't be the central focus due to them already being mostly rejected in the market. XCloud and Stadia are the major contenders in terms of their parent companies' infrastructure and networking capabilities, as well as their brand recognition amongst gamers.
- Now I'll be discussing one of the main technical issues people have regarding these services: Input latency.
- As a quick review, input latency refers to the base-line amount of time it takes from the moment a button to be pressed, and the moment in which the game responds to this. Of course some function in games will have an intended delay between a button press and an on-screen response, however input latency doesn't refer to this circumstance.
- In research for this piece I compared the latency of my Switch Pro Controller on the menu of my Switch between my TV on game mode and off game mode. The reason for this is because I've actually found a noticeable difference between the two. Back when I first got my TV I had forgotten to enable Game Mode for my Switch input, and upon playing Fate/Extella Link I noticed everything felt a bit floaty. It was playable, but it impeded my ability to feel like my controller was responding correctly to my controls. I think the important thing to note here is it was playable, but noticeable. When I compared the response rate of this, the difference in delay was roughly 62 milliseconds. The Xbox One wireless controller response rate clocks in around 9 milliseconds, so assuming the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller is the same, I'll use the acceptable playable maximum latency as around 75 milliseconds.
- PlayStation has PlayStation Now, a currently running service with a large selection of games, but it suffers from some massive latency issues - the benchmarks I saw of it were in the 170 to 190 milliseconds range. This service requires the user to have a PlayStation 4 to use, and ultimately I'd consider a non-contender in this discussion for all purposes except as a minimum to beat. As you may have noticed, the low 170 milliseconds is roughly 2.25 times our "acceptable playable maximum latency."
- At E3 2019, Ars Technica got their hands on Project XCloud. Their setup was Halo 5 on an android phone connected to an xbox controller. The reporter pressed the "A" button several times and they clocked the time between input and on-screen movement as being 67 milliseconds. This is more than 100 milliseconds less than PlayStation Now's latency and 8 milliseconds less than our "acceptable playable maximum latency", but 58 milliseconds more than the Xbox One's wireless controller. While it would certainly make most games playable, it would fit squarely in the "noticeable input lag" zone.
- It's also to be noted that the Ars Technica team, due to being at E3 for this test, were under pretty much laboratory-standard conditions for this test. My own network latency is 18 milliseconds, however I had one of my colleagues who work in a game development studio test their internet, and their results were 6 milliseconds. So if we take 6 milliseconds as the standard for industry grade networks, we can infer that XCloud would have a 79 millisecond latency, putting it barely outside of our "acceptable playable maximum latency".
- The latency of cloud based game streaming services will vary depending on your distance from servers of course.
- Google better addresses latency with Stadia - an Xbox controller that's connected to a phone then has its data transferred to the cloud server. The controller to the phone has around 9 milliseconds latency. Google Stadia addresses input latency by selling the Stadia controller - this is a controller that connects directly to your router via wifi, entirely removing this 9 millisecond latency from the controller. Assuming Google Stadia has roughly the same overall latency as XCloud right now, months before launch, this of course means it'd have a 58 millisecond delay on an industry grade network, and a 70 millisecond delay on a consumer grade network. This actually does fit into our 75 millisecond "acceptable playable maximum latency". I will note that at the time of writing this script, I had decided the 75 millisecond baseline before doing the math to come to this 70 millisecond conclusion. Honestly I'm rather surprised to have Stadia - theoretically - already capable of landing within it.
- So, of course when discussing latency, we have to address the elephant in the room: Network infrastructure isn't created equal.
- Across the world and the US, of course the quality in internet each consumer is capable of getting varies from region to region and household to household. This means things like some consumers being unable to get high speed internet and being stuck on speeds below 10 Mbps, or being stuck at 100-200 ms pings. For these users, services like XCloud and Stadia just aren't viable as gaming platforms. These users will be forced to retain hardware adoption for games. XCloud and Stadia, unfortunately, aren't capable of overcoming the hurdles of connectivity, just as PlayStation 5 and Xbox Scarlette are unable to overcome the hurdle of requiring constant and consistent access to power.
- It's also of note that many in the USA suffer from a data cap. While most companies offer Unlimited Data plans, these often come with a 1 terabyte limit. If you are an avid gamer, you'll chew through these limits quickly with a game streaming service, however, assuming you're limiting yourself to only using half your plan on game streaming, according to Google's estimated data speed requirements, you'll be able to play 32 hours of games in a month, a bit over an hour a day. This doesn't at all suit most gamers, however more casual players of video games may find this level of play to be enough. And it's of note that this would only be to those who subscribe to the pro plan - if you're only going to be streaming at 1080p, you'll get 56 hours of games out of your 500 GB limit, meaning about an hour and a half of daily gaming. Going even further, if you stream at the minimum 720p, you'll find yourself with double the time to put into your games.
- Of course, all this said, if you can't or don't want to afford higher caps, your area lacks these caps, or you're in some other way unable to or unwanting to lift these caps, game streaming isn't for you.
- I think it's important to keep games available when you're not streaming, Stadia and XCloud are better tailored to more casual video game consumers, or to those who have plentiful access to internet. Lower income households may prefer to save and pay the $300-$600 for a console rather than have a monthly recurring fee. Areas with poor internet access may have to play traditional consoles.
- There's also people who prefer to feel ownership over their games. If Google or Xbox decide to remove their services, any money you've put into them is ultimately gone with no opportunity to play your games later. This is of course a very real and valid fear, though for some games it's more real and valid than others. As time goes on, companies who are creating some of the premiere content in the gaming space such as Bethesda, EA, and Ubisoft, are opting more and more for multiplayer focused games rife with microtransactions. As we've already seen in 2018 and through 2019, these companies are also not shy about making games be online only, leaving the purchaser with no opportunity to play their games later. Not all games are like this, but I do think that if you participate in the purchasing of online only games, you've already given up on making sure your entire collection is playable indefinitely into the future.
- Into the future, cloud gaming services will become non-optional, just as physical games are already on their way out. As the consumer market is driven more by these, ISPs will be forced to take actions making these services more viable. It's important that net neutrality be strong to prevent these companies from just making unlimited data caps for their choice services, and increase speeds for these services. I see the cloud gaming future as one that's initially only exciting for the consumer who would rather pay the $10/month than put down more than $300 all at once. I however do have misgivings in terms of game preservation. Physical and digital games can be played later, can be stored and decrypted, and emulated once computer hardware matches up with it. The unfortunate thing about streaming is that because the native code is never actually on your machine, it's anybody's guess as to what the native code really says.
- Once streaming exclusive games start coming out, and they will regardless of what consumer desires are, we'll start seeing games that won't be able to last forever. We have more than 40 years of game history with everything major that's ever been released preserved, and even most of the minor releases too. We're not heading towards a future in which acclimation of these works will be entirely impossible except for to rewrite them from the ground up, redesigning the game. The game companies won't care about the preservation of their games, even if the developers do, and it's indeed very sad to consider.
- I think in the future, Cloud Game Streaming will work its way through society and become pervasive enough that ISPs will be forced to open up. I think we'll see an overhaul in US network infrastructure to accomodate these services. We'll continue to see more and more services open up, similar to how right now, in 2019 we see everyone making their own video streaming platform. Developers will be able to take advantage of higher-spec technology which more consumers will, via streaming, have access to. Hardware manufacturers will inevitably be outpaced by cloud streaming, and have to either assimilate into the services-focused market a la Microsoft, or offer features that, be it by patent, or by limitations of networks, will be unable to be offered by streaming services a la the Nintendo Switch's portability capabilities, the 3DS' stereoscopic glasses free 3D, and the Wii's motion controls.
- But regardless of if we resist it, cloud game streaming will be a major portion of the upcoming video game industry. I think it's important as consumers to both be excited, but also very wary that we not let it take the place of traditional platforms, at least not yet. And here, I'm reminded of a quote from scifi author William Gibson: "The future is here. It's just not widely distributed yet." The future of video games is an exciting adventure, and video games will keep growing and becoming more capable whichever way we set out. These mass-level industry shakeups have lead to the biggest advances in the industry, from the video game crash of the 80s leading to the invention of Nintendo's R.O.B., and 64-bit 3D rendering capabilities leading to the Nintendo 64, all the way up to the money-engrossed graphics race leading to Nintendo taking an alternative take on Video Games with the Nintendo Switch. Everything that happens in this industry will continue forward, and us consumers will be lead by the hand to the next step. Let's just all hope, for the sake of entertainment, the industry doesn't lead consumers only to find the market has abandoned it as it did Atari in the 1980s and Sega's hardware divisions in the late 1990s.
- MUSIC playing underneath
- I hope you enjoyed this special episode of Another Switch Media Release. Please leave direct any questions or comments on this episode to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Until next time, Ram-out! (it's important to do the salute with 2 fingers thing here, even if people can't hear it)
- MUSIC plays out
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